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How Do I Erase Deleted Files?

Physically destroying a hard drive is one way to ensure its files are not recoverable.
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  • Written By: Ken Black
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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While putting a file in the trash, and then deleting it, may same like a good way to get rid of a file, the truth is that the file is still there. The thought that the file is completely gone is a common misconception, but more savvy computer users are becoming aware that deleting a file actually does nothing of the sort. It simply hides the file from the computer. For those that find this disconcerting, there are a number of ways to more thoroughly erase deleted files.

One of the easiest ways to erase deleted files is to format the hard drive. Usually, this will wipe the system completely clean, and even programs that usually are used in the recovery of deleted files will not be able to find them. This is one of the most drastic ways to get rid of files, but it usually does work.

Another way to erase files that have been deleted is to use a data eraser program. There are two kinds of data erasers. Some are used for individual files. Others are used for the entire hard drive. The option chosen is generally up to the user, but not all software products will do both. Users should understand what the difference is in the software products before purchasing. Otherwise, there is a good chance the consumer could be disappointed with the product.

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Software that does a complete data wipe is very similar to formatting the hard drive. This will completely erase deleted files, along with all the other files on the computer. Those using this option should be very mindful of this, and make sure there are backups of all important files. This is the only way to completely recover everything that is wanted after the software finishes the job.

Other types of software used to erase deleted files can be used for single files only. This is probably the situation that most computer users will prefer. This will keep all other files on the machine, and save the user from the time-consuming process of reinstalling all their desired software products on the computer. This type of software is sometimes called a data shredder, and basically writes over the file several times with random data. The more times a file is overwritten, the harder it is to retrieve the original information.

For those who are especially concerned about sensitive information, it should be noted there truly is no way to guarantee any method used to erase deleted files. There could always be a chance that some data remains on the hard drive in recoverable form, especially as technology is always changing on both sides of the equation. Outside of physically destroying the hard drive, and installing new hardware, something still could be recovered if enough effort and time are put toward the task. However, in most cases, data shredding programs will do an adequate job of getting rid of unwanted files, unless the individual looking for it is extremely well trained.

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Discuss this Article

anon289883
Post 4

Cheap software like File-Scavenger can reconstruct a formatted hard drive. Anyone can use it.

darrenchaker
Post 3

If you warrant the attention of the NSA, run! In reality, the NSA is not involved in things your ex-wife or local police want to know about you. Nonetheless, the use of Magnetic Force Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (MFM or STM) is used by some laboratories and regional police laboratories, but if the proper software is used, the chances of recovering anything of use is non-existent. Evidence Eliminator is a great tool to make sure private information stays private once destroyed.

anon106866
Post 2

I worked with the National Security Agency with this matter on a more sophisticated scale. I can tell you that, unless you posses great knowledge concerning the inner workings of computers (And a $250 online course that teaches you little tricks doesn't count) it will be nearly impossible to cover anything up by deleting it, reformatting hard drives etc. If you have to hide something that desperately, you probably shouldn't have been messing with it in the first place.

The most difficult people we have engaged are those who have a separate mobile computer system that contains no personally identifiable data, that is a computer, not bought with a credit card, locally, no 'chat' accounts, no personal online accounts visited ever, different sets of user names, never plugged into a personal internet line (Stick to high-traffic areas with minimal security such as McDonald's or the mall) etc. etc.

It was on these unidentifiable computers where they ran their 'black hat' programs, stashed kiddie porn, ID theft market databases and other things that are in one form or another illegal and required maximum insurance against being connected to the person in question. One had an inert electromagnetic coil (Or something of that nature)that had an plug which would degauss the entire device before igniting the battery making recovery very very difficult. But not impossible.

Certainly you don't need to take these measures if you are simply hiding your porn folder from your wife. Regardless, if you think of a clever scheme to hide a program from the law, black/ grey-hatters, or 'big brother', it won't work.

anon103324
Post 1

This article isn't quite correct. It's more common that reformatting a drive doesn't destroy files, unless the parts of the hard drive that are used to store new partition or format information just happen to overwrite that information.

We regularly recover data from hard drives that have been reformatted/ repartitioned multiple times (chances of recovering data grow smaller the more a hard drive is reformatted or used).

Small additional point, it's also common to see disk wiping software tout writing multi-pass random bytes with Defence department standards etc., but as someone who recovers deleted information, if it's zeroed, it's gone.

I'm not saying it's impossible according to known physical rules of the universe, but it smells a bit like science fiction that someone can recover your data after you've zeroed a drive. Maybe just use those methods if you work for the CIA/ KGB.

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